Day 22: A Letter To My Junior English Students ~ Why We Read Poetry

not so long ago

It is a dinner table built for four, and as we crowded around it, we five for dinner, this was my thought: How much they have changed. How fast the time has gone.

It is difficult enough to hold in my head the reality that my baby girl is now a college freshman, home for Christmas break. And who are these young men? These handsome, interesting, intelligent young men, who were just yesterday two little boys, an unexpected blessing that came to me as part of the package when I met and married their Dad.

The times they are a’changing. Eliza is psychology major with an interest in special needs children. Alex is a college junior studying communications, a million miles away in Minnesota. Carson is a Swarthmore graduate on the path to a doctorate in philosophy; he is spending this year teaching English at St. Louis University High School. As the years have passed, the conversations around our dinner table have changed, as well. Tonight we talked of literature and linguistics and logic truth tables.

I am fascinated to hear the stories of their lives. Last night I was thrilled to spend some quiet time with Carson, immersed in his tales of being a first year teacher at a private boys’ school. He talked specifically about the joy of teaching poetry to these 16- and 17-year-olds—no doubt a daunting task for even the most seasoned educator.

I thought for a long time about how to make poetry meaningful to them, he said, how to make it matter. And I decided to write them a letter to introduce them to poetry. I thought they might be interested in a more personal perspective.

He shared that letter with me, and I found it so beautiful, and so profound, I asked Carson for his blessings to share it with you, here.

I am so happy he said yes.

November 16, 2011

To my junior English students:

This is why we read poetry: some poems are true. They are true in ways that diagrams, tables, charts and maps cannot be true. A good poem has more than information to offer; it presents a configuration of words that opens the possibility of seeing the world differently. It invites you in. It disorients you and disrupts your unconsidered habits. But reading a good poem is not like finding out some shocking fact that forces you to reevaluate your behavior—it asks of you the daring to think beyond mere facts. It shows that facts are only the beginning.

Every moment, every image, every word has multifarious resonance and can lead to innumerable novel possibilities, if you grant your permission.

It is correct, but sadly limited, to say that studying poetry helps us build analytical skills and reading comprehension. I hope that it does these things for you. But if you treat poems as puzzles to be solved, the ‘answers’ will seem arbitrary or impossible to verify. What we say about poetry is not mere opinion, but there is also no answer key locked in Wordsworth’s old desk. This means that although we are not just making things up, we are also not hunting for an answer. We are following the poem’s lead; this is much like trying to learn the customs of a new place.

Saying something true about a poem requires you to pay attention to it, not trying to psychically divine the ‘author’s intent’ but instead allowing the rhythm of the words to push you along, considering their meanings, noticing their confederacies and tensions. What I ask of you is to live in the poem. Try to make sense of its world. Better, let it make new sense of yours.

This is how you read a poem: slowly. Every word matters. Yes, I will expect you to know the most important words and phrases exactly, no matter how unreasonable this may now seem to you. People once recited poems from memory; they knew the words like old friends. If you are to understand poems, you have to get to know them, and this means reading the words until they are familiar. Yes, even though you will have to read them multiple times. Read them openly, giving them your permission to suggest what they will to you. You may get lost in a connected thought—this is part of the point. Take the detour, make a note in the margin. Start again.

Is the poet describing a scene? Imagine it. How does it feel to be on the sidewalk in the early evening, like Eliot, “the grimy scraps / of withered leaves about your feet”? Can you imagine, with H.D., an August heat “that presses up and blunts / the points of pears”? The poet’s specific choice of words makes up the lyrical contour of the moment in which she asks you to live. Do not allow yourself to reduce this to ‘night,’ or ‘heat,’ or good and evil, darkness and light. See the image; let the words animate it. This takes focus.

Take heart—you are capable of this focus. To each one of you, I honestly say that I believe you can be a lover of poetry if you choose to listen. You can even be a writer of poetry if listening turns to speaking, and if you can speak boldly and persistently. But you cannot ‘learn poetry’ like you learn algebra, checking off skills and formulae on a list. Learning to read poetry means reading it, with the confidence to inhabit it rather than mining it for answers or dismissing it as an overwrought way of speaking. Poetry is not a code. The truth in a good poem is the poem itself: its way of seeing the world, its insight into the surprising consonances of words and sounds and qualities of light. What we say about a poem only gestures toward what we see in it; we cannot sufficiently explain it. But we can pay close attention together and share our tentative findings. Doing just this, passionately and diligently, is more than enough.

~ carson monetti

30 Days of Joy

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